Like many others in the UK, I started gardening during a COVID lockdown. I was a complete newbie back then, and even worse — a descendant of Ukrainian peasants, raised in a village on the most fertile land in Europe, I excelled not in growing, but killing plants.
That spring in 2020, spurred by visions of an impending apocalypse, I sowed seeds of edible greens on my balcony and took extra care to not let them die. I watched those tiny things germinate and grow into seedlings, I thinned them and diligently watered their tender stems into maturity. Part of that first-ever-crop-in-my-life we (my husband and I) ate ourselves, while the rest was devoured by caterpillars. Week after week, I watched my flourishing potager being reduced to bare stalks, and it didn’t matter how many of those wiggly creatures I removed each day. It was devastating.
When we moved into a house with a garden the next year, I made sure to avoid brassica and the butterflies that came with it. However, a new enemy struck our patch of rented land. Slugs and snails staked our plot for their own and feasted on anything that touched the ground in that extremely wet summer of ’21. I was comforted only by the fact that it was too cold for anything to grow anyway. A vigorous vine of ipomoea purpurea that usually spreads like a triffid and flowers profusely, gained a total of twenty inches and produced two puny blooms in all. Slugs dispatching my lettuce at a seedling stage was just in the spirit of the year.
In 2022, the growing season was outstanding. Every gardener commented on the size and lushness of their plants. Tomatoes and strawberries kept on giving, and even tropicals produced their coveted fruit (without a greenhouse, mark it). I avoided caterpillars and devised a means to dodge slugs as well, but something else and something far worse happened on my land that year. A completely different type of invasion was underway — not of my garden in England, but of the land of my birth, Ukraine.
It was the end of February when the first air-raid alarms sounded over Kyiv. Thousands of people all around the country went on the move: some traveled across the borders of Romania or Poland while some relocated to the Western Ukraine. Part of my family and friends left their homes, and part of them stayed, but for everyone, it was a very hard and personal decision to make: to evacuate or stay put.
My mother declined to leave our village near Zaporizhzhia, stating that she felt more comfortable and secure in her own home — the house that she and my stepdad had built with their own hands, on the plot of land that they had been tending for half of their lives. The place was built as a family home, where each of us had our own space, and the garden around it was shaded by cherry, apricot, and apple trees that had been planted when I was still a child. Neither the largest nuclear plant in Europe some 100km away nor the enemy lines that were even closer didn’t change their decision to remain.
Through the months that followed, the garden became my parents’ anchor and a focus of their unwavering attention. Despite the war, they kept on planting, growing, and preserving the things that their land had produced. In the UK, I too buried myself in seed packets and gardening blogs, so whenever I met my parents on Skype we invariably ended up talking about our plots and comparing notes. We debated on the best time to plant our seedlings, in Ukraine and the UK. We weighed up the merits of growing peonies that smell divine, but, sadly, don’t last. Just mentioning our horticultural endeavors was comforting. It took our thoughts away from the horrors of war and brought a temporary sense of normality, a feeling that everything was fine. If the plants kept on growing, we felt, the same as they had done before, then everything would be ok.
Without our gardens to distract us, it would have been unbearable to stare in the eyes of the abysmal reality for too long — at the devastation that had been brought to Ukraine: a growing number of dead, children illegally moved to Russia, property and infrastructure in ruins, a nuclear threat, and no end to the war in sight. As one Ukrainian person put it: “If we were to constantly think about how deep in shit we are, we would be crying non-stop.” Hope was a necessity then, even if it was hope for a healthy plant, for a growing cycle to repeat itself.
When the first blooms opened up after a long, frosty winter, my social media channels burst out with color: first crocuses popped up in the woods around Kyiv, then tulips peeked out in Kharkiv city yards. It was the time when towns and villages around Kyiv had already been liberated from Russian troops, while Kharkiv was still being intensively shelled. I too posted photos of my modest spring garden in England: two pots of crocuses and muscari that, back in November, without giving it any thought, I planted in a combination of yellow and blue — the colors of the Ukrainian flag. Sharing those images with others was like saying: ‘Look, after winter there comes spring, and our winter soon too will end.’
Many in Ukraine expected the war to finish by the summer of 2022, and people were full of expectations and plans. My sister, who had evacuated from Kharkiv after weeks of hiding in a basement, was planning to go back to Ukraine after staying with us because she thought that the war would surely end by then. Some, like our family’s acquaintance in Zaporizhzhia, planted a crop of potatoes before going away — so that they wouldn’t waste a growing season and have a bunch of potato plants waiting for them on the plot.
As the time of spring sowing got nearer, anxiety among people in Ukraine grew. Conversations became peppered with questions about what would happen if the war didn’t end soon, if the sowing didn’t take place: Would there be enough grain to feed the nation? What about international obligations regarding the shipment of crops? The news of Russian troops looting grain and damaging sowing equipment only exacerbated those worries.
After a period of uncertainty, with the war still on, the sowing did, in the end, take place. Farmers were risking their lives and machinery on mined fields, but they kept on working the bruised land. Images of tractors carting off captured Russian tanks became a familiar, morale-boosting image, and a symbol of resilience in Ukraine.
That spring in my garden in England, I was planting with tremendous zeal. I spent hours poring over websites and catalogs, sometimes staying awake deep into the night, searching for the best plants to fit into this or that corner — so that they would grow with the amount of light available, complement the whole, and be of benefit. Somehow, it was very important to grow only those plants that could be useful — to us in the kitchen, to pollinators, to birds. If it was a rose bush I was looking for, it had to produce good rosehips or have flowers with a small number of petals, so that bees could access pollen easily. If I was choosing between a purely ornamental plant and one that was going to feed someone, I went for the latter.
My obsession with utility, I suspected, had to do with more than care for the environment though. Living my sheltered life with war constantly in the background, I myself felt extremely powerless. As I tried to stay connected with the reality in Ukraine, I read The Kyiv Independent newsletter each morning, straight after waking up. In it, there was collected the most important (and diligently fact-checked) information on the latest developments in the country, including numbers of dead and wounded. “A daily dose of horror” I called that morning ritual, as, despite the news of international support and achievements on the front lines, it was a daily reminder that the war was still there. The need to be of consequence, to help, to do something, became more and more overwhelming, and as I couldn’t be of much more use than I already was, I could at least plant a flower for a bee, I decided.
That season, I sowed all kinds of leafy greens, flowers, and medicinal herbs; not a corner of our plot was left untouched. When the plants started to grow, I spent hours trimming, repotting, and rearranging them in attempt to achieve a harmony of colors and shapes. Gardening turned into a tremendously important chore. I performed it each day without fail, like therapy, a prayer, or my personal battle — trying to impose structure amid the chaos of war, to create as much life as possible, to outrun the march of death. My garden was my answer to annihilation that threatened my country, my parents, my friends, and even my own body as I expected a nuke to drop on my head at any moment. As the garden evolved, that answer changed in shape too — through seeds germinating, seedlings growing, petals unfurling, like a melody, or a cry with no end.
The war didn’t end in spring, but some sort of normality didn’t cease either. People kept on living and working in Ukraine, while many were coming back from abroad, including the recent refugees. Despite the shelling of cities and villages, it gradually became possible to maintain a measure of an old routine. Those of my friends and acquaintances who hadn’t left the country or joined the army kept working in their regular occupations, adding volunteer work whenever possible. The everyday and the extraordinary were being woven into one piece of fabric, prickly with tears, nauseous with worry. Here my mom reported on how she had been to a dentist appointment, had her hair cut at a salon, and shopped at a local market — quiet, peace-time chores, and there she told me how, one day, while gardening, they had been startled by a rocket flying past in the distance. “That was scary,” she said, “Luckily, the glass in the windows didn’t break.”
Children playing outside while air-raid alarms blared overhead, was becoming a new normal. People were adapting to a life under constant stress, and moving between the two realities, the one of war and the one of peace, required a huge amount of effort. Those activities that had been taken for granted before, like clearing garbage or repairing busted electricity lines, had become quiet acts of heroism in themselves.
When everything that we’d sowed and tended to in the spring started to really flourish, my mother and I developed a habit of swapping photos of that bounty and complimenting each other’s efforts and style. Our garden discussions grew more vigorous too. During our video chats, we would start with the weather — how hot the rest of the summer was going to be and how much rain we were getting. Then we would dwell on the passage of war and who was doing what in relation to it — neighbors evacuating (when the fighting intensified) and coming back (when it got quieter), someone’s abandoned cat visiting for a meal, relatives in Russia keeping silence (afraid even to mention the word “war”). Then we would move on to discussing our gardening techniques, from tools to pest control — how, in the UK, it was impossible to find the same type and size of hoe that people used in Ukraine, or how blackcurrant bushes kept catching mildew in the hot, dry summer of Zaporizhzhia.
Now and then, our garden-talk would bring up stories from our family lore. It was a rather straightforward trek, actually, since, for generations, we’d had a strong connection to land, be it owning it, losing it, or gaining it back, living off it, or moving through its wide expanse. It was as if the land was a separate being, having its own role to play in our family history. Some of my ancestors, being farmers with a small plot of land and a few heads of livestock, were expropriated from everything they owned and deported to Siberia. Some of them survived the Holodomor (thanks to warm-hearted Romany people who shared with them crusts of bread). Some were moved from their villages and resettled to unfamiliar lands. There were no dissidents among them, no activists or intellectuals, no one to attract special interest from the secret police. All of them were part of a nameless mass of people, agriculturalists, stripped of whatever they had, uprooted, and spread, like seed grain, around the vast Soviet lands. With time, it seemed to me that we came to resemble a tumbleweed rolling hither and thither wherever the wind blew, rather than a tree with a strong root system. When, in the UK, I met people whose families had been living in the same area for generations, I listened to their stories with envy — I never felt how it was to know a place that intimately, to have connections that went that deep.
More than ever then, it felt vital for me to unearth and reclaim my own roots. I asked my parents to tell me everything they remembered — of their own, their parents, and their grandparents lives: the moments they witnessed or were told of, all the little details that might have looked insignificant before. At the same time, I read voraciously on the history of Ukraine. “If I couldn’t root our memories in one patch of land,” I thought, “I could at least root them in the facts of history.”
Many books, like The Gates of Europe by Sergii Plokhy or Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder, where Ukraine was given its due place in the history of Europe, were a revelation. Many others, like Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine made me cry non-stop. Among photos of the period included in her book, there was an image of a family standing in front of their house, in simple clothes, barefoot. They were marked for deportation as “kulaks,” or rich peasants — exploiters, although in reality, they might have been slightly better off than the poor.
“The true rich,” my grandpa, whose grandparents were swiped in dekulakization after World War Two, used to tell us, “Paid their way out and escaped to the cities.”
That photo featured in the book had been taken before the peasants were sent to Siberia, and I could easily imagine my own ancestors in their place. They could have been standing just like that, bitter at the unfairness of having to give up the fruit of their hard labor, terrified of what lay ahead. And ahead were the snows of Siberia and harsh survival for women and children, while for men there were labor camps until, most probably, death, as no one in their village would hear anything of them ever again.
When fall came and the war was still there, my family and friends stopped expecting a quick finale. My sister was still in the UK, without plans to go back to Ukraine any time soon. My parents were still standing by their decision to remain in the village, despite the uncertainty of the near future.
“First, we thought that the war would end in a few months,” my mom said, “Then – by autumn. Now, we just get on with it.”
As Russia launched massive attacks on critical infrastructure, and power outages started all over Ukraine, everyone braced themselves for a cold and dark winter. In villages, people chopped wood into blocks ready for burners. If one could find any, one also bought generators, power banks, portable showers, and large water buckets. Everyone was getting ready for the dark times, as if it could get even darker.
In England, I started clearing my garden to get it ready for winter — or spring even, as autumn was the time for me to plant crocuses, muscari, camassia, and tulip bulbs, which meant I had to start planning the look of my plot for the next season. It felt weird to be making plans for months ahead despite all the uncertainty. Autumn was also the time to put perennials into the ground as the soil was still warm and the roots could gain enough strength for the plant to really shoot out in the next year when there would be more warmth and sunlight.
As the days got shorter, I often ended up outside at dusk, with a flashlight, digging holes for spring bulbs or removing dead climbers from their supports. I wrapped one bulb after another into their own blankets of moist soil, covered the roots of wallflowers and shrubs with it, and it made me think of a different aspect of darkness — the one where there was no threat to life, but a promise of it. Because, if you think about plants, there is life in darkness too: when there is no light, plants channel resources into growth, even when you don’t see anything happening on the surface.
In Ukraine, where people were going through a dark period filled with suffering, there had been growth too. Everyone I knew noticed an ever-increasing sense of solidarity, a willingness to give support to each other, or, at the very least, to offer a few nice words.
From the beginning, instead of dropping everything, people banded together and started helping each other, whether they stayed in Ukraine or moved abroad. Again and again, in just a few days or even hours, people collected the funds necessary to buy protection, medical supplies, food, vehicles, and even drones. The famous slogan “Keep Calm and Carry on” — which had been invented during WW2 in the UK and then commercialized until it lost its somber meaning — got reinvented in Ukraine that year, gaining a new iteration: “Keep Calm, Donate, and Trust in ZSU” (Zbroini syly Ukrainy or AFU, Armed Forces of Ukraine.)
At the same time, solidarity acted as an unimaginably powerful and healing force: knowing that in the darkest of times that one was not alone made that darkness less scary. There might have been those who kidnap, kill, and torture — a modern version of big gray wolves and babai monsters that move in the dark, but there were also people who ventured into a war zone to bring medicines and food to those in need of them, who moved pets to safe places, and assembled emergency boxes to be left in elevators — in case one got stuck there during an electricity cut.
That ability to get organized and act together, like a colony of ants, was on Maidan Nezalezhnosti during the Revolution of Dignity of 2013-14, and earlier, during the Orange Revolution of 2004. By a curious coincidence, both revolutions took place in winter, and those winters were freezing cold. I still remember how our group of university students left the lectures to join the Maidan protests in 2004. We went there day after day, despite the snow, bundled up in warm coats and even ski attire. In the winter of 2013-14, protesters went out again, despite the cold temperatures and police violence.
The full-scale invasion also started in winter, and now the next winter was looming ahead, with many more privations. People didn’t seem scared though. Worried, stressed, angry, frustrated —nyes, but not panicked. Because, even though it was dark, nobody was in that darkness alone.•